An Ugly Truth in the War on DrugsPublished on Sunday, 10 March 2013 10:55
By Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ruth Dreifuss This week, representatives from many nations will gather at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna to determine the appropriate course of the international response to illicit drugs. Delegates will debate multiple resolutions while ignoring a truth that goes to the core of current drug policy: human rights abuses in the war on drugs are widespread and systematic. Consider these numbers: Hundreds of thousands of people locked in detention centers and subject to violent punishments. Millions imprisoned. Hundreds hanged, shot or beheaded. Tens of thousands killed by government forces and non-state actors. Thousands beaten and abused to extract information, and abused in government or private “treatment” centers. Millions denied life-saving medicines.
These are alarming figures, but campaigns to address them have been slow and drug control has received little attention from the mainstream human rights movement. This is a perfect storm for people who use drugs, especially those experiencing dependency, and those involved in the drug trade, whether growers, couriers or sellers. When people are dehumanized we know from experience that abuses against them are more likely. We know also that those abuses are less likely to be addressed because fewer people care. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime recently described what it saw as the fallout of the war on drugs. A system seems to have been created, the agency said, in which people who use drugs are pushed to the margins of society. What the agency failed to note, and which is clear to those of us involved in harm reduction and drug law reform, is that these people’s human rights have also been marginalized and are too easily ignored. The U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board has refused to condemn torture or “any atrocity” carried out in the name of drug control, claiming it was not its mandate to do so. This is both shocking and contradictory: oversight of international drug control treaties is the control board’s very mission. Late last year, despite the evidence before it, the U.N. Committee against Torture failed to condemn the widespread abuse of people who use drugs in the Russian Federation.
In Russia, drug users are routinely cramped into large numbers in one room in woeful conditions, with inadequate food, often tied to beds for periods of up to 24 hours. Those singled out as troublemakers are injected with haloperidol, which causes muscular spasms and spinal pain, and often are tortured and beaten to force confessions. Requests for medical assistance often results in more beatings. While tolerating such abuses, the Russian government continues, inexcusably, to prohibit the prescription of oral methadone treatment to people who are injecting heroin or other opioids, fueling the H.I.V. epidemic and risks of overdose. In a report last week to the Human Rights Council, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned abuses against drug users in detention centers across Asia and called for them to be shut down. But far more attention is needed. Just as we now view the war on terror through a human rights lens, we need to see drug control as a human rights concern. We need to acknowledge that not only are human rights abuses in the war on drugs widespread, but that they are systemic.
They are an inevitable result of what governments do when they set repressive and unrealistic goals to eliminate supply and demand for widely available commodities and exhibit zero tolerance for human behavior. A systemic problem demands systemic change. Recently, a U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs was announced for 2016. It is a chance to look again at the drug control system. This time, human rights must be at the forefront. As we move toward 2016 and this important review, it is time for the human rights movement to take a leading role in calling for an end to the war on drugs and the development of drug policies that advance rather than degrade human rights.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president of Brazil, is chairman of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Ruth Dreifuss, a former president of Switzerland and minister of home affairs, a member of the commission.
Source: The New York Times